The best way to honor a dead playwright is to do his plays well. It's a point worth remembering as the centennial of Eugene O'Neill's birth approaches in 1988. If O'Neill's plays don't find compelling life on the stage, no amount of official celebration can make them great.
"A Touch of the Poet" at the Melrose Theater is far short of compelling. It is being presented by the newly formed Eugene O'Neill theater festival (not to be confused with the one in Connecticut), in repertory with two O'Neill one-acts: "Before Breakfast" and "Hughie," opening Oct. 30 (through Dec. 7).
It's not a disastrous production. The tavern set doesn't fall down. But it does tremble when someone slams the door. And the acting and direction aren't all that secure either. It's a long three hours.
The play has interest. Written in 1936, it was to have begun O'Neill's cycle of "possessors self-dispossessed," a bitter study of the American dream and what it really comes down to: greed.
It's also O'Neill's most Irish play, a fact that only actress Jeanne Hepple conveys with any reliability. Hepple plays Nora Melody, married to a tavern owner named Con Melody (Stan Weston), whose life is indeed a "con." He struts around like a Byronic war hero, which he once briefly was, while Nora sweeps up and keeps an eye on his drinking.
Nora is a simple character. Indeed, she is a cliche: the put-upon wife who can't help loving that man. But Hepple gives her strength and humor. We can see that Nora chose her man freely and is all in all quite pleased with the bargain.
Con is a far more complicated part. In effect, he is two men: the displaced aristocrat of his imagination and a down-on-his-luck shanty Irishman, perhaps also partly of his imagination. He's a great actor, prefiguring James O'Neill in "Long Day's Journey Into Night," and it would take a great actor to play him. Weston can't encompass Con's extravagance and his jolting moments of truth. The actor plods along, upholding the part but rarely seizing it.
Mary Wadkin as Con's and Nora's daughter, Sara, is fine when she gets her Irish up, but her quiet moments tend to be stilted and sometimes inaudible. (The whole cast confuses sincerity with low vocal energy, something director Tom McDermott should have straightened them out about.) Wadkin has the stuff to play Sara, but she's doing it by the numbers.
The supporting cast is a mixed bag. Victoria Ann-Lewis has little of the presence required for the role of the rich Yankee, Mrs. Harford, but Tom Dahlgren has a certain hauteur as her henchman, Nicholas Gadsby. The smaller roles aren't well played at all: as in the opening scene, which takes place over a jug of whiskey. Neither actor believes it's whiskey for a minute and neither do we.
"Before Breakfast" and "Hughie" are simpler pieces and may be more convincing. But the O'Neill festival needs to do much better work than this "Poet."
Performances are at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday through Sundays. Information: (213) 465-0070.